The power grid may determine whether we can kick our carbon habit

  • High voltage transmission lines and turbines at the Dry Lake Wind Project near Holbrook, Arizona. The project is operated by Iberdrola Renewables, and all its power is purchased by Salt River Project.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • The 2011 San Diego blackout.

    Sean M. Havvey/U-T San Diego/
  • The Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station west of Phoenix can crank out more megawatts than any power plant in the nation, and the associated Palo Verde/Hassayampa switchyard is the most active electricity trading hub in the West.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • The switchboard and generator of the world's first single-phase AC power transmission system at the Ames hydroelectric plant near Telluride, Colorado. The plant, now owned by Xcel Energy, continues to feed up to 3.75 MW into the grid.

    Library of Congress, HAER COLO,57-AMES.V,2A-6
  • The Alhambra control center of the California Independent System Operator, which manages about 80 percent of the state's grid and the mix of energy going into it.

    California Independent System Operator
  • Wind turbines line the ridge above the John Day Dam on the Columbia River. When water levels are highest, the Bonneville Power Administration may force wind generators to shut down, to avoid overwhelming the grid. Courtesy

    Samuel M. Beebe/Ecotrust
  • Contractors watch last April as a helicopter places a lattice tower for the Sunrise Powerlink, the controversial 117-mile, 500-kilovolt electric transmission line that runs from Imperial County to San Diego, California.

    Sam Hodgson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
  • High-voltage transmission line in Arizona.

    Jonathan Thompson

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In the spring of 2011, rivers in the Pacific Northwest swelled when an unusually ample snowpack melted, and the water backed up behind the big electricity-generating dams of the Columbia River and its tributaries.

The Bonneville Power Administration, which manages the dams and its own grid-balancing area, either had to run that extra water through the turbines, and put thousands of megawatts of additional power into the grid, or spill it over the dams without generating electricity. The decision seemed simple -- produce the power and sell it for a bundle, right? But it wasn't, because of the limitations of the grid and the presence of native fish.

Even during normal water levels, the collective power plants and dams in BPA's balancing area generate far more power than its customers can use. In late April of this year, for example, the dams and a growing number of wind farms together cranked out as much as 6,000 megawatts -- enough for some 6 million homes -- more than BPA's customers could use. So both BPA and many of the wind farms have contracts to sell that power elsewhere, much of it going directly to California by way of the Pacific Intertie, an 850-mile-long, high-voltage DC "electricity superhighway" from near the Columbia River's Dalles Dam down to Los Angeles.

As the massive 2011 snowmelt began, power consumption everywhere was down, due to a combination of the recession and mild temperatures in the Northwest and California. The grid operators had to figure out how to curtail power production in order to maintain balance. Spilling the water over the dams, though, would raise the percentage of dissolved gases, such as nitrogen and oxygen, in the river downstream, which, in turn, could kill migrating endangered salmon with something called gas bubble trauma. So the power behemoth forced the wind farms, which rely on BPA's transmission to get their product to market, to shut down so that it could keep its hydropower operation going full-tilt.

For nearly two months, 2,000 wind turbines sat idle, causing their owners to lose between $2 million and $5 million in potential revenue, even as the dams -- not to mention coal plants in other parts of the West -- continued to generate juice. The wind companies, claiming discrimination, sued BPA and filed a formal complaint with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC. Save our Wild Salmon intervened on wind's side, arguing that BPA was using the salmon-saving argument without basis -- the group believes that the benefits to fish from spilling water offset the harm from gases -- to keep from having to unload its hydropower at "negative prices" (paying others to take the electricity, a not uncommon practice in electricity markets). FERC ruled in favor of wind and sent BPA back to the drawing board. Last year, BPA curtailed far less wind power and compensated wind companies for resulting losses to the tune of some $3 million (mere chump change for BPA, whose total budget is around $4.4 billion).

Most observers agree that's not a sustainable solution; the FERC commissioners noted in their ruling that an expansion and improvement of the grid, i.e., more transmission, could alleviate the pain of all the parties involved by opening up more pathways to market that surplus power. In so doing, the commissioners allied themselves with a growing group of environmentalists who want to change the grid by integrating massive amounts of renewable energy to help combat climate change. Enter the grid-oriented greens.

Amanda Ormond has been involved in energy issues for over two decades, including a seven-year stint as director of the Arizona State Energy Office, and a subsequent career as a consultant, working mostly with renewable energy companies. Today, she is considered one of the region's foremost experts on solar power and is a member of the Western Grid Group, an independent organization made up largely of former utility regulators and state officials, who are devoted to transforming the grid to increase the amount of renewables in our energy mix. Ormond has a wholesome look -- long brown hair cut straight at the bangs, freckles on her nose -- that belies the intensity with which she thinks and talks about these issues.

To those who fret about the destabilizing effects of adding too much solar and wind to the grid, Ormond has a quick response: Cooperate, share and take advantage of the West's geographical diversity to iron out those variable output curves. The concept is called geographical smoothing, and it's been embraced by everyone from grid-oriented greens to scientists and engineers. "The West is very diverse, and that's a good thing," says Ormond. "You want plants all over the place, because the wind's always blowing somewhere."

"The more geographically diverse your (wind and solar) systems are, the less variability," says David Mooney, center director at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. In other words, a dip in output by a wind farm in Tehachapi, Calif., can be offset by turbines in Wyoming; ditto for a solar farm in New Mexico, which might reach peak output two hours before a facility near San Diego. It's also easier to predict fluctuations over a broader area: An MIT study found that when a geographic region's diameter is increased, forecast errors are reduced by as much as half.

To help accomplish this smoothing, grid-oriented greens would like to see the West's 38 balancing areas join together into an "energy imbalance market," or EIM, that would allow them to share both renewables and the natural gas-fired plants that back them up. Electricity sales would take place on a five-minute schedule, rather than an hourly one, because that's more in rhythm with the ups and downs of solar and wind. That would alleviate the need for each utility to build its own backup plants, and would therefore lower the cost of integrating renewables into the grid. "Say a utility has 50 generators," says Ormond, "but there are 4,000 in the West. If you had access to all 4,000, it would be more efficient."

"For renewable energy, it makes zero sense to stay in your small area," says Tom Acker, a professor of mechanical engineering at Northern Arizona University. He compares the utilities' current approach –– building up all their own natural gas reserve plants –– to buying a big SUV for everyday use, even though you really need it only a few days out of the year. Under an EIM, a bunch of balancing utilities would be able to share their renewables and that SUV, not to mention the transmission lines. "The progressive way of thinking is to share ... that is absolutely crucial or we'll never get renewable energy into the system."

Indeed, an energy imbalance market, says Cameron Yourkowski, policy analyst at Renewable Northwest Project, a Portland-based advocacy group, would have allowed wind operators or BPA to put all that surplus power up for bid during the spring of 2011.

EIMs are slowly taking hold in the West. Xcel Energy, which serves most of Colorado's heavily populated Front Range, is pushing for an energy imbalance market to expand the pool of reserves -- both fossil fuel and renewable -- from which it can draw to back up its burgeoning quiver of wind power. And in February, the California Independent System Operator and PacifiCorp announced that they would create a real-time energy imbalance market by autumn of 2014.

But a well-connected market requires a well-connected grid, and that's the catch: The current fossil-fuel-centric grid has left many of the windiest, sunniest places marooned, without a way to get solar and wind power to population centers. How much new transmission is actually needed remains uncertain. "Local groups will say we can do this with rooftop solar," and therefore minimal additional transmission, says Gary Graham, of the Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates. "It's just not the case. You can't get that many solar panels on roofs that fast in the West" to reach his group's goal of 50 to 80 percent renewables by 2050. "You need utility scale." And that, says Graham, could require up to 25,000 miles of new transmission in the West alone.

In today's climate, that would be a herculean feat. Try stringing 600 miles of cable, held up by hundreds of 200-foot towers, and someone will try to stop you, guaranteed. Transmission is notoriously difficult to build because a single line can cross so many jurisdictions, from private land, where landowners only get a one-time payment for an easement that will last forever, to federal, tribal and state lands. While the feds can push a natural gas pipeline across multiple states using condemnation powers, they can't do the same with transmission lines, thanks to a 1935 law. A provision in the 2005 Energy Policy Act established "national interest" transmission corridors -- including one leading from southern Arizona into the San Diego area to alleviate congestion there -- through which the feds could, theoretically, have backstop condemnation authority if the states dawdled. However, courts sympathetic to environmental concerns have mostly hamstrung the law.

About two dozen major interstate transmission lines to enable renewables are in various stages of permitting in the West, but none are proceeding very quickly.

Colorado billionaire Phil Anschutz wants to build a huge wind farm near Rawlins, Wyo., and ship the power to California via Las Vegas via a 600 kilovolt, $3 billion direct current line, the TransWest Express. Environmentalists aren't thrilled about 1,000 turbines in sage grouse habitat. And at a recent pro-transmission conference in Denver, Bill Metcalf, of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, balked at the TransWest line because it is direct current -- meaning few or no on- and off-ramps en route -- so other wind farms along the way won't be able to connect to it, making it exclusively Anschutz's electricity highway. The proposed Sun Zia line from wind-rich central New Mexico to the Tucson area has hit opposition because it could cross through environmentally sensitive areas such as southern Arizona's San Pedro River Valley. In California, a relatively short line, from the wind farms of Tehachapi to the Los Angeles grid, is on hold thanks to resistance from a well-to-do community in its path.

In 2010, FERC tried to push grid expansion by encouraging stronger regional planning efforts, and bringing in stakeholders at an earlier stage. Ormond is somewhat optimistic about how that's working in the West. "Instead of looking just at voltage flows and contingency plans," she says, "they've been looking at: What do we need, holistically, going forward? Let's look at all these possible futures and concentrate on building the paths that are most necessary."

Stringing wire all over the landscape is not the answer, says Ormond, though some wire must be strung. Even more important is putting the tangle of wires we've already got to better use. "If we do a combination of using the stuff we have better, doing some better sharing, adding new technology products like EIM ... then we're not going to need tons and tons of transmission," says Ormond. Operators have to make the grid "smarter" by outfitting it with better monitoring equipment and automating more of its operations: During the San Diego outage, controllers in each of the five affected balancing areas had to call each other on the phone to figure out what was going on. Transmission lines that are filled to capacity only during a few hot days in the summer should be opened to wind and solar for the rest of the year. Rooftop solar and other distributed generation sources should be beefed up with strong incentive programs. Viable energy storage would solve nearly all of the problems posed by intermittent renewables. But technology on a large-enough scale is still years, maybe decades, away.

If the green gridders are a faction of the environmental movement, they are not fire-in-the-eyes activists; they're more like technocratic problem solvers, working behind the scenes with environmental groups, utilities and state and federal regulators to make the grid less carbon-intensive. They're making progress, though it's slow. Rather than opposing new transmission projects outright, as they might have once done, environmental groups such as The Wilderness Society and the Natural Resources Defense Council have taken a role in the FERC-pushed, stimulus-funded transmission planning process and actively push projects that will bring more renewables to the grid so long as their aesthetic and environmental impacts are deemed acceptable.

"I think we are moving in the right direction ... toward a more regionally integrated system," says Ormond. But she worries that progress might be impeded by deepening political partisanship; Ormond worked under two Republican governors, and Arizona's current solar incentives were put in place by a GOP Arizona Corporation Commission. Today, however, Republicans routinely use renewables -- especially news-making failures, such as Solyndra -- as a whipping boy. "Clean energy does not need to be a partisan issue. In fact, it's really bad if it is," she says. "Bottom line is, it's not good for the country."